Southend United U23s coach Kevin Maher was left frustrated after watching his squad lose a Premier League Cup Qualifying Round fixture against Oxford United at Roots Hall on Wednesday evening.
Blues were beaten 2-1 by the visitors as they failed to reach the group stages of the competition for the fourth consecutive season. A Dejon Noel-Williams penalty shortly before half-time gave Oxford the lead, and Fabio Lopes extended the advantage in the 77th minute. A late Norman Wabo finish was not enough to complete a comeback.
“It was frustrating to say the least, because if you look at the 90 minutes I think we were the better team overall,” said Maher. “That doesn’t always mean you win football matches, and there were a couple of poor decisions by ourselves. We got done by the penalty and another set-piece, with a corner, when someone’s left their man and that’s cost us in the end.”
Oxford were out of the blocks quickest and Albie Hopkins and Aaron Heap both had close-range efforts blocked by the Blues defence in the third minute. Southend responded through Wabo, who struck the scoreboard with a rising attempt in the seventh minute, and Amadou Ba, who was unfortunate when he beat goalkeeper Jack Stevens to a lofted through-ball but couldn’t bring his own header under control.
Southend were growing in confidence, working the ball around nicely on the edge of the U’s penalty area and gaining partial success through Isaac Hutchinson’s set-piece delivery. In the 11th minute a free-kick from the former Brighton & Hove Albion youngster was nodded over by Zak Pianim, whilst a couple of corners were also cleared.
After a quarter-of-an-hour, Wabo fashioned an even better opportunity. Latching onto a through-ball the forward burst clear of the Oxford back-line before driving his shot towards the bottom left-hand corner, with Stevens required to make an impressive parried stop to turn the ball to safety.
U’s skipper Sam Long was then required to clear a teasing Ba centre from underneath his own crossbar before Noel-Williams dragged an effort across the face of goal at the opposite end. Oxford had been trying to frustrate their hosts by holding possession of the ball for lengthy periods, but Blues moved back into the territorial ascendancy as the opening period entered its final third.
Hutchinson warmed the gloves of Stevens with a 25-yard strike just before the half-hour mark, and the midfielder also saw an effort deflected wide in the 35th minute. From the resultant corner Taylor Curran nodded wide before Ba drew a good low save from Stevens.
Wabo linked up with Hutchinson on the edge of the penalty area before seeing a fierce strike well held by Stevens in the 38th minute, and Renei Batlokwa was unfortunate when his cheeky attempt to catch out the visiting custodian landed on the roof of the net. Stevens also made a smart stop to thwart Tom Clifford from Ba’s intelligent pass.
However, Oxford took the lead on the stroke of half-time against the run of play. Goalkeeper Nathan Bishop clattered into Noel-Williams as he attempted to poke the ball home and the referee pointed to the penalty spot. Noel-Williams stepped up himself to send Bishop the wrong way from twelve yards out.
The U’s maintained their momentum after the interval, and Lopez almost wriggled free before good work by Rob Howard held him up. Hutchinson and Ba smashed over early in the second period, but Blues were inconvenienced when captain Lewis Gard limped off with a suspected hamstring injury. Maher took the opportunity to make an attacking change and bring on forward Emile Acquah.
Hutchinson and Ba both went close to equalising from a right-wing Howard cross midway through the second half, and the woodwork then came to Oxford’s rescue in the 74th minute. A left-wing Hutchinson delivery was met by Batlokwa, with his initial attempt hitting Acquah on the goal-line and deflecting against post. Batlokwa’s follow-up was then directed against the upright, with Stevens pushing the ball to safety.
Southend’s task was made more difficult thirteen minutes from time when Oxford doubled their advantage. A Hopkins shot was deflected wide and, from the resultant corner, Harvey Bradbury’s header was deftly backheeled into the net by Lopes.
“It was a penalty for the first goal and there’s no question over the awarding of the penalty, and the second goal is poor because it’s someone not doing their job. I’ve said to the players in the changing room that if they go into the first-team they’ll be asked to do a job and if that happens it can cost teams points and ultimately it’ll cost people money and careers and stuff like that,” Maher remarked.
Blues rallied late on, with Wabo firing wide from just outside the penalty area before halving the deficit. The forward slid in at the back post to convert after Ba had made excellent progress to square the ball beyond Stevens in the 88th minute.
However, despite five minutes of stoppage time, Blues could create a clear-cut opportunity to level the scores and take the tie to penalties. “When you look at the performance as a whole we played well, but football is about more than that; it’s about doing your jobs, taking responsibility for things and being trustworthy,” claimed Maher.
“We had enough chances to win two games, but our finishing wasn’t good enough. We were slashing at things too often and there wasn’t enough composure in front of goal because we should’ve come off having scored two or three goals easily. Ultimately that’s cost us.”
“That’s what we’re trying to get into them because they’ve got to learn that if they go into the first-team they have to be trusted to do their job. I’m disappointed for the players because they will now miss out on six good games in the group stage where they would have been able to test themselves against better teams and in better stadia, but it wasn’t to be,” he added.
Southend United U23s: Nathan Bishop, Rob Howard, Tom Clifford, Zak Pianim (Miles Mitchell-Nelson, 78), Taylor Curran (Dan Humphreys, 86), Sonny Coutts, Renei Batlokwa, Isaac Hutchinson, Amadou Ba, Norman Wabo, Lewis Gard (Emile Acquah, 65). Substitutes not used: Josh Bexon, Eren Kinali.